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Date:

January 3, 1803

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"As in the case of fish, enormous quantities of meat were required to sustain a man who ate only flesh. The daily allowance of buffalo meat at Fort George was eight pounds a man. The Canadian voyageur's appetite for fat meat is insatiable." Meat, fat, and pemmican were hunted and stored for long winters at fur trading camps, but some of them were supplemented with summer harvests or traded wild rice. Some even got fat by eating maple syrup.

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The Savage Country

Topics: (click to open)

Pemmican
Trapping, Exploring, Hunting
Rabbit Starvation
Facultative Carnivore
Carnivore Diet

Important Text:

Better off were the posts in the buffalo country that subsisted on a fare of juicy steaks, roasts and tongues. As in the case of fish, enormous quantities of meat were required to sustain a man who ate only flesh. The daily allowance of buffalo meat at Fort George was eight pounds a man. The voyageurs who, between them, ate thirty-five whitefish a day would have required forty rabbits to get the same amount of nourishment. Two whole geese were no more than a meal for a man in the northern posts.

The prairie posts were blessed with an almost inexhaustible supply of buffalo meat that delivered itself, so to speak, to their very doors. Hunters sometimes killed entire herds and returned with nothing but the tongues. In seasons of lesser abundance, the whole carcass of the animal was utilized. The hunters cut the meat up into twenty pieces much like our standard cuts of beef for transportation to the post. The choice cuts were the hump and back meat. The tongue generally went to the hunter.

To the trader, settling down with his "family" for the long prairie winter, the sight of tons of fat meat in his icehouse or glacière must have been a comforting one. The size of his store depended on his needs; but Duncan McGillivray gives us an idea of what the average post required. In his glacière were stacked 500 thighs and shoulders the meat of 413 buffalo, weighing almost a quarter of a million pounds. Even in the elder Henry's time, the beef reserves at some of the posts were awe-inspiring. "At Fort des Prairies I remained several days," he wrote, "hospitably entertained by my friends, who covered their tables with the tongues and marrow of wild bulls. The quantity of provisions which I found collected here exceeded everything of which I had previously formed a notion. In one heap I saw fifty tons of beck, so fat that the men could scarcely find a sufficiency of lean."

While the meat of the buffalo made excellent steaks and roasts although not so delicious as those of the moose -it was the fat cuts, especially the long depouilles of back fat, that were most prized. "The Canadian voyageur's appetite for fat meat is insatiable," Franklin observed. And the bourgeois had no less a fondness for the grease and tallow that are mentioned so often and almost as a delicacy in their journals. In this they were following a sound instinct. For, as Vilhjalmur Stefansson and other arctic explorers have often pointed out, a man could live long and well on meat alone provided he got enough fat along with the lean. Without it as the rabbit and fish eaters knew by experience he was likely to become sick, and even to die, from fat starvation.

Hence, the North West Company took good care to satisfy the craving of its men for fat. Thousands of kegs of grease– really buffalo tallow – were put up at the pemmican posts" for the northern departments. In one year at Pembina, Henry kegged up almost two tons of it, and another two tons in the form of pemmican. By the traders it was called "the bread of the pays d'en haut. Henry, incidentally, has left us this list of provisions "destroyed" at his Pembina post in one winter by 17 men, 10 women, 14 children, and 45 dogs:

  • 112 buffalo cows -- 45,000 pounds

  • 34 buffalo bulls -- 18,000 pounds

  • 3 red deer

  • 5 large black bears

  • 4 beavers swans

  • 12 outardes geese

  • 36 ducks

  • 1,150 fish of different kinds

  • 775 sturgeon

  • 410 pounds of grease

  • 140 pounds of bear meat

  • 325 bushels of potatoes and an assortment of kitchen vegetables

This adds up to about a ton of meat and fish apiece for every man, woman and child in the post; but more interesting, perhaps, is the inclusion of no small quantity of potatoes, and even kitchen vegetables, at the end of the list. Not every post was as fortunate as Pembina in this respect. Only the larger establishments were able to supplement their basic fish and meat diets with potatoes, cereals, and garden truck; but some of them did so on a rather large scale.

Like Bas de la Rivière, with its fields, barns, stables and storehouses, Rainy Lake also had its cultivated fields and domestic animals. And at Pembina, Alexander Henry himself did not do badly as a farmer. In the fall of one year he reported:

The men had gathered the following crops: 1000 bushels potatoes (produce of 21 bushels); 40 bushels turnips; 25 bushels carrots; 20 bushels beets; 20 bushels parsnips; 10 bushels cucumbers; 2 bushels melons; 5 bushels squashes; 10 bushels Indian corn; 200 large heads of cabbage; 300 small and Savoy cabbages. All these vegetables are exclusive of what have been eaten and destroyed since my arrival.

The virgin prairie soil produced not only abundandy, bur spectacularly for Farmer Henry: 


I measured an onion, 22 inches in circumference; a carrot is inches long and, at the thick end, 14 inches in circumference; a turnip with its leaves weighed 25 pounds, and the leaves alone weighed 15 pounds.


The North West Company's post at Fond du Lac, on the St. Louis River, kept two horses, a cow, a bull, and a few pigs. The fort at Leech Lake had a garden that produced a thousand bushels of potatoes, thirty of oats, cabbages, carrots. beets, beans, turnips, pumpkins and Indian corn. The Concern had also brought horses to the post, "'even cats and hens."

And how, one might wonder, did the Concern succeed in transporting horses, cows, bulls and other livestock through a roadless wilderness, traversable by only canoe and dog sledge, to forts a thousand miles or more from any civilized settlement? Were they brought out in the Company's small schooners, such as the Otter and the Beaver, to the Grand Portage, and thence over the winter ice to the Interior posts? Were they even carried while young and small, perhaps, in the great canots du maître? Or, had they already been brought to the pays d'en haut by the French, in the earliest days of the fur trade? Peter Pond, writing of his trip up the Fox River, in what is now Wisconsin, says: "I ort to have Menshand that the french at ye Villeg whare we Incampt Rase fine black Cattel & Horses with Sum swine."

It is something to speculate about like so many of the Nor' westers' doings!

In addition to his garden and livestock, there were other ways a trader could vary his diet of straight meat, or fish, or a combination of both. He could, for instance, buy certain items of food from the Indians. Among these, wild rice or, as the traders often called it, wild oats was perhaps the most important. Rainy Lake was the great source of supply Growing in the water to a height of more than eight feet, the rice was harvested by the Indians, who drove their canoes through the rice beds and beat out the grain. In ordinary seasons, Harmon tells us, the North West Company bought from 1200 to 1500 bushels of wild rice from the natives; "and it constitutes a principle article of food at the posts in this vicinity."

Maple sugar, also bought from the Indians, was more than a luxury on the trader's table: it was often an important staple, and sometimes all he had to eat for long periods of time. It was made from the sap of the true and bastard maples, and even a certain variety of birch. The work of gathering the sap and boiling it down was left mostly to the women. In the spring the whole tribe went to the sugar bush, where the men cut wood for the fires and hunted game for food, while the squaws gathered and boiled the sap. The elder Henry describes one sugar-making expedition that produced 1600 pounds of sugar, besides 36 gallons of syrup not counting 300 pounds consumed on the ground. During the whole month in the bush, he tells us, sugar was the principal food. He knew Indians, he adds, who lived wholly on sugar and understandably enough grew fat.


Game was bought from the Indians, or procured by the trader's gun: venison, moose, bear, antelope, as well as ducks, geese, swans, and occasionally their eggs. By the voyageurs, if not always by the bourgeois, dogs were frequently purchased for food. A small dog, of a species specially bred for eating, was regarded as a great delicacy by the Canadians.

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